An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Pleasantville (1998)

Tobey Maguire's David applying make up to disguise the fact that his TV mother (Joan Allen) has gone

Tobey Maguire's David applying make up to disguise the fact that his TV mother (Joan Allen) has gone colour in Pleasantville. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

With blockbusters clammering for our attention at every turn it’s easy for some of the smaller, more thoughtful films to slip passed, unnoticed. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies, both old and new, that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon finds themselves trapped in the 'nice' black and white world of

Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon finds themselves trapped in the 'nice' black and white world of a 1950s TV sitcom in Pleasantville. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

Pleasantville, Dir: Gary Ross, starring: Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy and J.T. Walsh. Cert 12

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be – so the famous saying suggests. This is the raison d’ etre for a subtle and brilliantly funny satire Pleasantville written and directed by Gary Ross, the man behind Tom Hanks’ bodyswap comedy Big.

Whereas, the previous film was merely a clever idea that was superbly realised, Pleasantville is an entertaining, bittersweet comedy with something pithy to say about the world in which we live.

The black and white world of Pleasantville gradually slips into colour as sex rears its head. Pictur

The black and white world of Pleasantville gradually slips into colour as sex rears its head. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

The film follows the humdrum life of David, a TV nerd played with a lovely sense of irony by Tobey Maguire. It seems that he lives his life through the prism of old 1950s sitcoms where people lived impossibly perfect black and white lives in small town USA.


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David likes his safe, unadventurous life which is in stark contrast to his sister Jennifer, played by Reese Witherspoon with a devilish twinkle in her eye, who has always got her eye on the next hot date.

Meanwhile their parents are not the happiest couple in the world with their constant bickering and arguments. To David the world portrayed by his safe, cosy black and white sitcoms is infinitely preferable to the messy real world in which he finds himself.

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But, he soon finds that he should be careful what he wishes for. A fight with his sister over the TV remote control finds them transported into the predictably black and world of Pleasantville where each episode starts with Dad (William H Macy) putting his hat on the hall stand and uttering his catchphrase: “Honey. I’m home.”

It’s a world of happy, dependability and David and Jennifer are about to wreck havoc. Thanks to endless TV re-runs, it’s world that David knows well but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s not a world that either of them really know.

Apart from being in black and white, no-one goes to the toilet, meals don’t get burnt and every basketball shot or baseball strike hits the mark. The world is clean, lovely, resolutely cheery and upbeat. Everyone is white, middle-class and has a job.

This is a world without passion, without sex, without rock’n’roll. At first David has to coach Jennifer not to disturb the equilibrium but ever so subtly bits of colour start to appear. At Lover’s Lane chaste hand-holding has been replaced with kissing and when one of the high school basketball stars has sex for the first time the evidence of his wrong-doing is shown-up for all to see when he misses a shot – the first person at the school ever to do so.

Slowly at first, but gathering speed as the film hits its stride Pleasantville bursts into colour. At first it’s seen as a mark of shame and grey make-up is applied to hide their wrong-doing. There are obvious metaphors about racial segregation but the film isn’t bout that, it’s about allowing yourself to enjoy new experiences.

Jennifer introduces her mother (Joan Allen) to the joys of bath-time masturbation while David shows would-be artist and soda shop owner Jeff Daniels the world of Picasso, Turner and Van Gogh. He starts to paint and his world explodes into colour while the tree outside Joan Allen’s bathroom bursts into flames.

The middle-aged men of the town retreat to their own safe haven. “Thank God nothing can touch us in the bowling alley” one of them says. But, even for them the world of change is about to engulf them.

Pleasantville is hugely enjoyable film filled with great ensemble performances but it’s also a great satire and one that lingers in the memory long after you have finished watching it.

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